George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Tuesday 19 June 2007
Zambian warmth in Norwich
Owen Powell - 19th June 2007
I first heard Emi’s voice through headphones. It was a typical May morning in London, I was standing in a wet Trafalgar Square next to a radio car whose detachable aerial seemed taller than Nelson’s column. The BBC London breakfast show was featuring the project, so we’d given them a ‘hard-to-find’ list of ten countries and the appeal was being broadcast capital-wide. (I think the idea of us being in Trafalgar Square was that anyone who heard the show could come down and join in. No-one did, though. Too wet.) Our list was a proper A-Z, starting with Algeria and finishing with Zambia, and we had high hopes of hearing from all of them.
Two hours later, colder, wetter and wiser, the breakfast show had only really taken three calls. One from a woman who claimed there were 250 countries in the world, and who was recorded reciting them (they would occasionally fade her up during our little interviews, as if to tease us with how many more we had to find); one from a guy from Barbados whose details were subsequently lost; and, finally, Emi, from Zambia. Success! We chatted to him about his country’s flag and where he lived, and he promised to email us. And he did! A day later, we got a lovely email which signed off ‘Zambia – The Real Africa’. Intrigued, I emailed back and we set up a meeting in Hackney.
As we settled down into our chairs in the bar of the Hackney Empire, Emi (short for Emmanuel) smiled and said that in his opinion, Zambia is the heart of Africa. Not specifically geographically (I think the Central African Republic has quite a good claim to that), but in terms of its people, its wildlife, and as a beacon for the future. It’s a landlocked country, right in the middle of lots of other regions that have suffered immense problems – wars, human rights abuses, dictatorships – but has survived as a peaceful enclave since independence from Britain over forty years ago. In fact, refugees from places like Angola, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda have found their way to Zambia in recent decades, and it has become a place of sanctuary for many thousands.
So, what was the explanation? Emi thinks it’s a combination of factors. Firstly, independence came early, and without much struggle. Secondly, Zambia is rich with natural resources. It’s the third biggest exporter of copper in the world, and China in particular is investing lots of money in resource-rich African countries. Thirdly, and here Emi smiles again, “people in Zambia are laid-back. We’ve got nothing to fight for.” This friendly attitude is the main thing Emi misses from home. “If you go there, people will take you around. You’re never lost. If you want to go ten kilometres away, people will take you. Sitting on the bus, people talk to you. Not like here.” Emi does a quick but devastatingly accurate mime of a typical Londoner sitting on the bus, reading the newspaper with earphones in. “It’s a brotherly attitude.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Emi found an atmosphere similar to this Zambian warmth not in London, but in Norwich, where he studied for a Masters in International Child Welfare. “Sometimes,” he says, amused by the thought, “ I could go for three weeks or a month in Norwich without seeing another black face. Once, I saw another black man right in the distance and I ran after him, but he disappeared. But the people in Norwich were really friendly. They weren’t suspicious at all, even the older people. People would chat to me in pubs and restaurants, ask me where I was from. In smaller towns, I think, people are more curious. In London, people are more aware of how they’re ‘supposed’ to behave, so they won’t talk about race or nationality. They’re afraid of causing offence, so it’s easier to say nothing.”
During his Masters, which began in 2001, Emi’s life changed in two fairly drastic ways. Firstly, he was offered a job in social work through a London-based recruitment agency. Secondly, he met his wife, who is from Zimbabwe. “She has a passion for foreigners,” says Emi. “Well, we both do, I suppose. It’s good to be with someone from a different culture. Every day is a learning process. We speak English with each other, but we’re trying to learn the different languages as well. There are 73 in Zambia. I speak about 40 of them – although lots of them have similarities. My wife speaks three Zimbabwean languages, and I’m getting quite good at the one she speaks most often. Better than she is at mine.” I ask if that’s because he’s had more experience in learning languages. He smiles. “Possibly. But really, I think it’s because she’s on the phone so much to her family, so I hear it more often.”
Emi’s job offer came at a time when he was considering going on to do a PhD, but he feels that the practical experience is helpful for any future academic work. He specialises in helping care for children with disabilities, and he’s currently putting together a plan to begin his doctorate next year in this field, alongside his day job, but still needs sponsors. He’s been on the Hackney social work team for a year, before that he worked in a similar role in Tilbury. “I look after, usually, more than 20 families at one time. It’s very fulfilling to help a family – they’re often in distress, enduring so much, then life starts coming back to normal.” I expect you make a lot of people very happy, I say. “Yes,” he says, “but they make me happy as well. You really get to know the family – it can be a long process, from birth, all the assessments. And when a family has a disabled child, their whole life revolves around that child. It’s difficult for the family to go to big public events, they can get embarrassed, and it affects the other children. One of my responsibilities is to balance their life, sometimes finding respite care so the rest of the family can do things as well.”
Emi’s ambitions to help people don’t stop here. “I want to improve the lives of people in Zambia as well. I’m liaising with politicians over there, I have meetings. I have to take my skills back home – I feel very strongly about this. I’ve set up a programme to sponsor children through higher education, and further study abroad if possible. The education system in Zambia is very British. Until 1983, all our exams were marked in the UK – they would send the scripts over to Cambridge every year. There was always a long wait for results.” Emi is warming to his theme now. “Who knows? Maybe one day, I’ll be president,” he smiles, tongue in cheek, “and you can say you interviewed me back in 2007!”
But the last time Emi went back to Lusaka, he felt lost. “A lot of my friends have moved away now. Things have changed. I think I feel more of a Londoner, now. I’ve got a long-term visa, a work permit until 2011. Now I’m married, as well ...” He lets the thought hang. I think Emi is pretty settled in London. Not that there aren’t some downsides. He’s been mugged twice, in Peckham, both times at knifepoint. “The first time, it was ten in the morning on a Saturday. A busy day, people all around, and suddenly I feel someone close behind me and a knife sticking in my ribs. I still have a hole in my leather jacket! I had ten pounds on me, I handed it backwards without looking and the knife went away. But apart from the violence, London is a good place to be. It deserves to be the world capital – there’s everything to see, everything to do. I have some friends who’ve been in London 25 years, and there’s still bits of Hackney they’ve never seen.”